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January 18, 2017

YES! The Smugglers return to rock one more time!

photo: Aaron Rubin

It’s amazing what can happen when you say yes. After years of dormancy, my rock ’n’ roll band recently agreed to its first gig in over a decade.

The Smugglers formed back in 1988, when my suburban high-school friends and I were inspired to start a band after sneaking into Club Soda, a downtown venue on Homer Street, to see Montreal garage-rock stars the Gruesomes.

Our first gig happened a year later, at Chicago Pizza Works. (Anyone? It was also on Homer Street, kitty corner to Club Soda, and both businesses have since been Vancouverized; which is to say, they’re long gone). From there, we played more and more shows all over Vancouver, at other hallowed, now-defunct clubs like the Town Pump, the Starfish Room, and the Cruel Elephant. The Smugglers were a mainstay at Nardwuar’s legendary series of all-ages gigs.

Soon we began to venture out of town, to places like Victoria and Calgary, and we started releasing records. By the end of our 16-year-run, we’d played hundreds of shows in such far-reaching places as Japan, New Zealand, and all through Europe and North America.

When the band finally wound down like an old dog, in 2004, our problem was saying yes to just about everything. One of our founding members finally said no. And so began a very long hiatus that, for band members and fan(s?) alike, seemed liked a permanent break-up. When anyone asked, I told them I didn’t think the Smugglers would ever play another show.

Then, this past summer, I received an email from a 19-year-old promoter named Alex Botkin, asking if the Smugglers would consider a performance. I was reminded of my own teenage self, when I would cold-call our favourite bands to ask them if they would come to Vancouver to play a show.

Alex wanted the Smugglers to reform and play with several of our former Lookout Records label-mates for the 30th anniversary of 924 Gilman, a legendary all-ages punk club in Berkeley, California. We had played it many times, and it was considered the epicentre of the pop-punk explosion of the 1990s, led by Green Day, a band that practically formed within its walls.

I sent an email to the rest of the Smugglers. To my surprise, everyone said yes. Suddenly, we were back in action, booking practices, flights, hotels, and a rental van – all for one performance. At our rehearsals, despite the epic time lapse, everything clicked. Therein lies the magic of rock ’n’ roll: There’s a special alchemy that occurs when you reassemble the exact people and parts who wrote and performed songs together. I had forgotten how exciting it could be.

The days and months passed, and suddenly we were on stage in front of a packed crowd in Berkeley. Our drummer took a deep breath and gave his drumsticks three quick clicks. Just like that, we threw ourselves into our first live performance in almost 13 years. People still danced, people still cheered, and our unique five-way chemical reaction bubbled over into 45 minutes of exhausting fun.

We couldn’t help but try to capture the energy of our past, which many times had me gasping for air and wondering if Gilman had a defibrillator on hand. When we bowed to the crowd at the end of our final song, it felt like I had been repeatedly smacked in the chest by a baseball bat. But I was happy. Really happy. I don’t know if we’ll ever play again, but here’s to the magic of rock ’n’ roll, and to the power of saying yes one more time.

Grant Lawrence’s memoir of his touring years with the Smugglers, Dirty Windshields, will be out this spring. No word on any other performances.

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January 14, 2017

The saga of the East Van backyard rink

IT’S BEEN MEMORY-BUSTIN’ REALLY COLD IN VANCOUVER THIS WINTER!

Sure, there have been some big snow dumps followed by cold, sunny weather, but rarely do they last more than a week in this town. I had to claw through my memory, back to the 1970s, to remember something similar – when it got cold enough, long enough, that they opened up Lost Lagoon for public skating. My entire family took advantage of that snap, skating time and again on the downtown lake, when I was just a kid.

Jump ahead 40 years (40 years!) and now I’m the dad with a three-year-old who’s obsessed with skating and hockey. He repeatedly asks me to build him a “backyard rink,” and I explain to him that Vancouver is just too warm.

Then, about a month ago, when that first cold snap struck, I thought, “Well… maybe, just maybe, I could pull it off for the kid.” I am not handy, so I went online and watched a few rink-making videos from the east. The easiest method I found is to buy some long two-by-six planks and the biggest tarp you can find. Thanks to several tips culled from Instagram, where I was posting my progress, I screwed the planks together into a frame and laid the tarp over top (a mistake; in retrospect, I should have put the tarp down first, then the frame, so the water could freeze at a right angle against the boards). I filled it with an inch of water from the hose. Within an hour, it was already frozen. Huh!

I should mention there were as many detractors on social media as there were helpers. Many told me an outdoor rink in Vancouver could never be done. Undaunted, I added an inch of water a day (which, itself, was a hassle, since I had to bring the hose inside to thaw it out between floodings). By day three, my son Josh’s dream had come true: He was skating on his very own backyard rink.

It worked! And it sure attracted a lot of attention. On day four, Bob Kronbauer from VancouverIsAwesome.com, did a story about the rink and posted a video of Josh skating. By day five, other kids were trying it out, and we borrowed the neighbour’s outdoor fireplace for après-skating rink-side s’mores. By day six, the rink was on page three of the daily paper as well as the nightly news. Needless to say, my family was taken aback by all the attention. “If you build it, they will come.” Too right.

We enjoyed about a week of action on the rink before it started to thaw, but by Christmas Eve it was frozen again and we enjoyed a Christmas Day skate in the bright sunshine. The snow and ice on New Year’s Eve thickened it even further, allowing for even more skating fun, which was so much more than we ever would have imagined. At last count, the VancouverIsAwesome video of Josh had over 100,000 views. To put that in perspective, my band’s videos have about 60,000 views.

Sure, it sucked that the sidewalks were slick and the roads were dicey and the city was slow to respond, and it was very challenging for seniors and the disabled. But if this kind of winter only happens once every 40 years, I hope you enjoyed it while you could. My son sure has. Drop the puck!

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December 20, 2016

Best Books of 2016

Here’s my roundup of the top-five best books released by BC publishers this year, just in time for your last-minute literary gift shopping. Let us rejoice in the glory of our written word!

The Killer Whale Who Changed The World

By Mark Leiren-Young (Greystone)

Leiren-Young expertly tells the heartbreaking story of Moby Doll (a young, doomed orca captured in 1964) as a means to illustrate our transition from referring to the world’s apex predator not as a “killer whale” but as an orca. This timely, riveting book is a must-read for anyone who cares about these highly intelligent social beings living just below the surface, right out there. What you’ll learn is guaranteed to fill you with a new level of respect for the endangered orca.

This is That Travel Guide to Canada

By Chris Kelly, Pat Kelly, Peter Oldring and Dave Shumka (Tite Publishing)

From the very funny fellows who brought you CBC Radio’s satirical current-affairs show This is That comes an equally hilarious first book. This fake guide was co-written by show producer Chris Kelly, and hosts Pat Kelly and Peter Oldring, along with Stop Podcasting Yourself co-star Dave “Shummy” Shumka. It includes everything from detailed descriptions of the best strip-malls of the Maritimes (“the epicentre of every community”), to the Top Five Walks in Canada (including the Walk of Shame: “walking home in the morning after a romantic tryst in the clothes you wore out the night before”), to the “maximum legally allowed number of Australians” in a Canadian youth hostel. The perfect stocking-stuffer for the CBC fan in your family.

A Series of Dogs

By John Armstrong (New Star Books)

One of the injustices of human life is that a dog’s lifespan is so short compared to ours. If you’ve ever owned a dog and gone through the love and heartbreak of its life cycle, you’ll know what I mean. Author/musician John Armstrong (AKA Buck Cherry of legendary Vancouver band the Modernettes) seems to know exactly what I mean. This is a funny, very relatable, well-written memoir that tells the touching stories of the many dogs John has had, backdropped by his rough-and tumble-life in and around Vancouver. Essential reading for dog lovers!

Bearkskin Diary

By Carol Daniels (Nightwood Editions)

The best novel I read this year was the fictional portrayal of Sandy, a First Nations woman victimized by “the Sixties Scoop.” There’s nothing fictional about the Scoop, however: Between the 1960s and ’80s, over 20,000 Aboriginal Canadian babies were “scooped” at birth from their mothers and placed in foster care by order of the provincial governments of the day. Out of this shocking chapter of Canadian history comes this very important and gripping book, partially based on author/former journalist Daniels’s life experiences.

The Last Gang in Town: The Epic Story of the Vancouver Police vs. the Clark Park Gang

By Aaron Chapman (Arsenal Pulp)

Vancouver “after dark” author Aaron Chapman (Liquor, Lust, and the LawLive at the Commodore)has done it again with his third book, which chronicles a bloody era of Vancouver that had previously been cloaked in a Mac jacket of mythology. Chapman does fine journalistic work here: the research is top-shelf, and he manages to never reveal bias to either the police or the gang, even though you sometimes wish he would.

• Grant Lawrence is the author of two books: Adventures in Solitude (2010) and The Lonely End of the Rink (2013). His rock ’n’ roll memoir, Dirty Windshields, is slated for spring of 2017.

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